Proclaiming a new era of hemispheric support for U.S. goals in the Americas, White House National Security Adviser John Bolton announced on Wednesday that, after a 23-year wait, the Trump administration will for the first time allow Americans to sue foreign companies for compensation over property confiscated by Cuba’s communist government after Fidel Castro seized power 60 years ago.
“Americans who have had their private and hard-earned property stolen in Cuba will finally be allowed to sue, ” Bolton told an audience of Cuban exile veterans of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.
Bolton also said executives in those foreign companies will also be denied U.S. visas. “Anyone who traffics in property stolen from Americans will not be issued a visa to the United States. They are not welcome here,” he told the crowd of mostly elderly exiles at an event to mark the 58th anniversary of the failed, CIA-backed invasion.
While it was music to the ears of many hardline Cuban exiles, targeting Cuba with new sanctions is likely to revive old tensions with U.S. allies such as Canada, Mexico and the European Union nations, as well as Russia and China. An attempt to further isolate Cuba also risks breaking up the regional coalition backing efforts to recognize Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaidó as its legitimate president.
Tightening the strings on Cuba’s already fragile economy could risk fueling another humanitarian crisis, prompting more Cubans to try and flee the island, joining the migrant exodus at the U.S.-Mexico border, some observers fear.
The controversial decision prompted an angry response from the European Union, which vowed to retaliate against U.S. companies. Canada, France, Spain, Great Britain and other countries with large investments in Cuba’s tourism, tobacco, rum and mining industries, have threatened to sue in the World Trade Organization if Washington interferes with the business ties between Cuba and another sovereign nation.
Some critics say choosing the Bay of Pigs anniversary is an odd choice to re-state U.S. democratic goals in the hemisphere. A historic disaster, the invasion was repelled by Castro’s forces, inflicting one of the most humiliating defeats on U.S. hegemony in the region. The Cuban ambassador to Canada tweeted: "You will be defeated & bite the dust once again."
But Bolton was full of praise for the Bay of Pigs veterans on Wednesday. “The United States will never forget the sacrifices you ... made on those hallowed beaches,” he said, comparing their heroism to the D-Day landings in Normandy during World War Two.
“The people began this movement in Cuba fifty-eight years ago, and the people are going to finish it,” he went on.
The decision reopens a festering old wound over what many exiles consider to be property stolen from them by the castro government. The controversial clause, known as ‘Title III’, is part of a 1996 law which dramatically tightened the U.S. economy embargo of Cuba, including a provision authorizing the filing of lawsuits by the U.S. claimants who had property in Cuba that was seized by the communist government. Until Wednesday, Title III of the 1996 Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, - also known as the 'Helm-Burton Act' - had been waived by every president over the past 23 years due largely to opposition from the international community.
“Its a clear signal, not just in Cuba, but around the world, that you’re not going to benefit from stealing the property of American citizens,” Bolton told Univision in an exclusive interview with Patricia Janiot.
Asked about the reaction from Europe, Bolton said the Trump administration wasn’t worried. “We have engaged in diplomatic conversations with many of the countries that might be affected. We have explained why we are doing this,” he said.
In a move that could have a much more direct effect on Cuban families, Bolton also on Wednesday announced a new limit on cash remittances to the island of $4,000 dollars a year, per person.
"These new U.S. restrictions on remittances and travel to Cuba will only hurt - rather than help - the Cuban people," tweeted Felice Gorordo, co-founder of a group of young Cuban American students and professionals, Roots of Hope. "This is a giant step backwards and only emboldens hardliners on both sides of the Florida straits that seek to maintain the status quo," he added.
The decision to enforce Title lll, which will go into effect May 1, puts another dent in President Barack Obama’s 2014 initiative to repair relations with Cuba, though it does not affect diplomatic relations which were restored in 2015. Implementation of Title lll would require the Cuban government to resolve some 5,913 certified claims worth about $9 billion. It could also open the door to an unknown number of new claims that would have to go through a certification process.
The law is seen by some legal experts as an extraterritorial overreach of U.S. law that infringes on the sovereign right of other countries to conduct their own foreign policy. Some experts have warned that Title lll would in fact relieve the Cuban government of the burden of having to pay compensation, passing the cost on to the foreign companies who now face potentially lawsuits under the Helms-Burton Act.
“The extraterritorial application of the U.S. embargo is illegal and violates international law,” said Alberto Navarro, the European Union ambassador to Cuba. “I personally consider it immoral. For 60 years the only thing that's resulted from the embargo is the suffering of the Cuban people.”
Cuba has struggled for decades to attract foreign investment due to its tightly controlled state-run economy, and while Title lll may make the island even less attractive to big business, it’s not expected to drive out major foreign players like Pernod-Ricard of France, which makes Havana Club rum, or Spanish hotel chains Melia or Iberostar. Other companies that could face lawsuits include Canadian mining company Sherritt which operates the Moa Bay nickel plant, Dutch-British consumer goods conglomerate Unilever and Swiss conglomerate Nestlé, the world's largest food and beverage company.
Even so, the new policy sent shock waves through the legal and business community that watches Cuba. “It’s back to the future, back to hostility and instead of what had been put in place, the end of Obama rapprochement," said Pedro Freyre, a Cuban American attorney with the Akerman law firm in Miami. "To paraphrase ‘Game of Thrones’, winter is coming, the dragons are now flying overhead. These are tough times,” he added.
Even if the new policy gets bogged down in international legal wrangling, that would not prevent it achieving it’s real goal of scaring off foreign investment in Cuba, according to Jason Poblete, a Washington lawyer and sanctions expert.
“The administration is trying to telegraph to the legal world that it plans to use Title lll as a tool. It’s about internationalizing the embargo,” he said, highlighting the frustrated goal of many conservative ‘hawks’ such as Bolton, as well as the Cuban American delegation in Congress, led by Senators Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey). “That’s what we couldn’t do in Cuba before because the dynamics were not there,” said Poblete, referring to the failure of previous U.S. presidents to win international support for the Cuba embargo which has been condemned repeatedly at the United Nations.
Bolton began his political career as a protégé of the late U.S. Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, a famous foreign policy ‘hawk’ in his day, after whom the law is named. The Helms-Burton act was passed under the Clinton administration in 1996 in the wake of the shooting down of two small planes flown by Cuban exile pilots from the search and rescue group, Brothers to the Rescue, near the Cuban coast, killing all four people aboard.
In a speech harking back to the Cold War and laced with anti-communist rhetoric, Bolton said times have changed and that the hemisphere is now closely aligned to U.S. goals interests in a way not witnessed in decades, largely due to the crisis in Venezuela.
Monroe Doctrine "is alive and well"
The United States was now supported by “likeminded nations” across the Americas in its efforts to topple Maduro and bring democracy to Cuba and Nicaragua as well, Bolton told his exile audience on Wednesday. “ The destinies of our nations will not be dictated by foreign powers; they will be shaped by the people who call this Hemisphere home. Today, we proudly proclaim for all to hear: the Monroe Doctrine is alive and well,” he said, referring to a 19th century U.S. policy that has long stood as a symbol of U.S. influence over the hemisphere.
In recent months Trump has sought to increase sanctions against Cuba as part of a policy to oust the government of Venezuela's de facto President Nicolas Maduro, who is considered illegitimate by the United States and more than 50 countries after fraudulent elections last year. Cuba is Venezuela’s principal ally in the region and provides vital medical and military intelligence support which is credited with helping keep Maduro in power. Referring to Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua as the ‘Troika of Tyranny’, Bolton said “the United States looks forward to watching each corner of this sordid triangle of terror fall: in Havana, in Caracas, in Managua.”
He went on: “The walls are closing in. There is no turning back. The people will prevail. And when they do, we know that Cuba will be next.”
However, many experts questions whether international support for regime change in Cuba comes anywhere close to the broad coalition of nations who support removing Maduro in favor of Guaidó. Despite criticism of Cuba’s one-party communist rule and repression of human rights activists, most countries do not share Bolton’s zeal for trying to impose democracy through economic sanctions.
Bolton told Univision that he expected the coalition would not be harmed by Wednesday’s action. “It would be very disappointing if democratic governments in Europe and around the world abandoned their democratic principles over a commercial dispute,” he said. “I don’t think that will happen. They will complain about the end of the Helms-Burton waivers, that’s for sure, but I think they will still support us on Maduro.”